ANDREW ADONIS on how Donald Trump is playing up the middle American fear that removing him would make the current chaos worse.
In the US they talk of a ‘Sister Souljah’ moment, where a political leader repudiates extremists associated with their own party. Every Democrat and left of centre leader who cares about principle and power has to now disown these three words: ‘defund the police’.
The situation in America is grimmer than at any time since Watergate and the assassinations of Jack and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. On top of Covid-19, street fighting in Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere is now akin to a civil war with rival armed militias and escalating deaths and casualties.
What makes this so much worse than localised disorder is that the conflict is being fomented from the White House. Donald Trump’s last, desperate re-election strategy is to encourage the very violence that he then blames Joe Biden and the Democrats for not stopping.
I don’t believe that Trump will go further and refuse to concede power if he loses. There was defining moment earlier this year when General Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, dissociated the military from Trump’s attempt to deploy it unconstitutionally in US cities. Equally significant is the stance taken by chief justice John Roberts, who is now consistently using his swing vote on the US Supreme Court to prevent hard-right justices over-reaching.
The real crisis is that Trump may not lose. Biden’s poll lead is in single figures, narrower than Hillary Clinton’s at this stage in 2016. And it is not hard to see why: Biden may be a good man but so far he has projected as a weak candidate.
The most striking thing about Biden’s acceptance speech at the virtual Democrat convention was its constant invocation of Barack Obama. When someone’s main claim to a job is that they once sat in the shadow of someone who used to do it, they are a weak candidate. Hillary Clinton was the same.
Her husband Bill used to say that voters prefer their leaders ‘strong and wrong’ rather than ‘weak and right’. Biden has nine weeks to prevent this election conforming to that pattern. He has to be strong and right.
Trump is playing up a Middle American fear that ejecting him might actually make the chaos worse, not because people beyond his ‘base’ like him, but because they fear that Biden might be pushed around by extreme activists on the left. This has a big racial component. Bill Clinton faced this moment in his 1992 election when Sister Souljah, a popular black activist closely allied to Jesse Jackson, the black leader of the left of the Democratic Party, appeared to suggest of that year’s Los Angeles riots that ‘black on white’ violence was justified.
‘I mean,’ she told an interviewer, ‘if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?’
Souljah and Jackson claimed the words were taken out of context, but in any context these and other remarks by her were out of order. Clinton didn’t just say so, he likened her to the extreme right. ‘If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black,’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke [the white supremacist and senior figure in the Ku Klux Klan] was giving that speech,’ he responded.
It is the same with ‘defund the police’. Of course there are big problems in US city police forces: massive abuses abetted by malevolent right wing politicians. But the future has to be reform not some Leninist notion of pulling the whole house down in order to build anew.
Biden’s speech on Monday was okay but not brilliant on this score. ‘Ask yourself: do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?’ Well, you may say subconsciously, why did I need to ask myself?
Addressing Trump’s mantra that disorder would erupt under him, these were his words: ‘Really? I want a safe America. Safe from Covid, safe from crime and looting, safe from racially motivated violence, safe from bad cops; let me be crystal clear, safe from four more years of Donald Trump.’
The only mention of the police in that long sentence was ‘bad cops’. That was crystal clear. Biden still has work to do.